|Josef von Sternberg, Merle Oberon and Charles Laughton|
The golden age of the television miniseries began in the mid-'70s - Rich Man, Poor Man was a sensation in 1976 and Roots made history in 1977. Classics like Shogun (1980), Brideshead Revisited (1981) and Winds of War (1983) soon followed. In 1976 the BBC's Masterpiece Theatre adapted Graves's historical fiction into a 12-episode landmark starring Derek Jacobi (Claudius), John Hurt (Caligula), Sian Phillips (Livia) and Patrick Stewart (Sejanus). An Emmy and BAFTA winner, I, Claudius debuted in the U.S. in 1977 and was, among other things, later acknowledged as inspiration for the blockbuster prime-time soap, Dynasty (1981 - 1989).
This year, in March, Acorn Media released a new boxed set edition celebrating the 35th anniversary of I, Claudius. Among the bonus features are extended original versions of episodes one and two, a behind-the-scenes documentary entitled I,Claudius: A Television Epic, an interview with Derek Jacobi and...a 70+ minute BBC documentary from 1965, The Epic That Never Was, about the unfinished Alexander Korda production of a Josef von Sternberg-directed film. This first version of the Graves novel starred Charles Laughton (Claudius), Merle Oberon (Messalina), Flora Robson (Livia) and Emlyn Williams (Caligula).
|A sketch by Art Director/Production Designer Vincent Korda for I, Claudius|
In 1937 Korda, who would later marry Oberon, set out to produce a grand epic. In 1933 he had produced and directed The Private Life of Henry VIII, the popular film that brought Charles Laughton a Best Actor Oscar, and produced another great success in 1934 with The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Leslie Howard. Hungarian-born but based in Great Britain, Korda's dream was to make pictures in England that rivaled those coming out of Hollywood. With Henry VIII and The Scarlet Pimpernel, he'd begun to realize his dream but wanted to reach further. With Charles Laughton still under contract to him in 1937, Korda's ambition was to create a film greater than either Henry VIII or their most recent collaboration, Rembrandt (1936). Korda bought the rights from Robert Graves for the recently published I, Claudius, hired Josef von Sternberg to direct, and the project moved forward.
|Charles Laughton as Claudius|
The Epic That Never Was is hosted by actor Dirk Bogarde, who recalls in his narration that as a teenager he ventured with friends to Korda's Denham Studios to watch the filming of I, Claudius. The documentary features interviews with many who worked on the film: Merle Oberon, Josef von Sternberg, Robert Graves, Emlyn Williams and Flora Robson, as well as Korda's longtime script girl and others. Only Korda and Laughton, no longer alive in 1965, are absent.
|Merle Oberon as Messalina|
|Flora Robson as Livia|
About 30 minutes of the 1937 production footage survives and is included in The Epic That Never Was; it is fascinating. Emlyn Williams is vile and reptilian as Caligula and Laughton's inspired Claudius foreshadows Jacobi's brilliant interpretation. As always, von Sternberg composed visually stunning, painterly scenes drenched in atmosphere.
Just a month into shooting, Oberon suffered a car accident in which she was thrown into the windshield. She was badly injured and filming was permanently halted. Emlyn Williams considered this "a godsend;" according to him, producer, director and star were not happy. Author Robert Graves, who had written an unused script for the project, assigned credit for the film's demise to Claudius himself - from beyond the grave...
The Masterpiece Theatre drama met a far better fate than Korda's promising but ill-starred venture. Along with awards won and influence extended, TV's I, Claudius earned an enduring reputation and remains today among the top-ranked miniseries of all time. Any speculation by Robert Graves, who lived until 1985 and the age of 90, on the late Emperor's reaction to the BBC series is unknown...
|John Hurt as Caligula, Derek Jacobi as Claudius, Sian Phillips as Livia|